Monday, May 26, 2008

Dreams a Thousand Generations Long

“When you know, even for a moment, that it's your time, then you can walk with the power of a thousand generations.”
— Bruce Cockburn, Dream Like Mine

Your young men shall see visions,
Your old men shall dream dreams.
—Acts 2:17
Young men see what is, old men see what will be. Both aspects speak of awareness of who we are, where we are and why we are. God is from eternity — He takes the long view. His plans and purposes endure. “He remembers His covenant forever, the word which He commanded, for a thousand generations” (Psalm 105:8).

God has dreams a thousand generations long.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Taking Time with God

Back when I was a sophomore in Bible college, before “small group” became the popular concept it is today, I was a part of a small group that met on Monday nights. It wasn’t designed for Bible study, or class study, or mission, or “ministry,” or “prayer meeting.” Steve, a fellow student who began the group, knew that our schedules were already overloaded with these activities, plus our class loads and day jobs. What we needed was a chance to cool out, to reflect, to just be with God and each other. This weekly get-together was appropriately called Taking Time.

It was difficult for us at first. We wanted to “redeem the time,” to “make the most of every opportunity” (Eph 5:16 KJV and NIV). To us, this meant a flurry of activity, going out and doing, always being on — otherwise time was being wasted. When we were so involved in giving up our time for God, how could we possibly take time with Him?

What we needed to learn was that serving God sometimes means simply sitting with God and enjoying Him, that godly contemplation is the flip side of godly activity, and that both are necessary for the Christian walk.

Years later, a book by Elizabeth O’Conner, Journey Inward, Journey Outward, helped me understand more. Even the title became a touchstone for me because it shows both aspects of the spiritual life. We begin with the journey inward. This is the prayer life, where we meet and come to know God, where we hear His call. Then He leads us on our journey outward, to obey and serve Him in the active life. As we become depleted in our activity, He calls us back on the inward journey to be renewed.

As difficult as it may be to believe, everyone of us can take time for the inward journey without the world coming to an end. Anthony Bloom, in his book Beginning to Pray, suggests an exercise to put this to the test. Choose a period of two to five minutes to sit quietly in the presence of the Lord. Set the timer on your clock to signal when to begin. When the timer goes off, stop whatever you are doing. Enjoy God. Let nothing distract you from this — not a suddenly remembered chore, not a ringing phone, not a knock at the door — nothing! When your time is up, Behold! The world can, and does, wait while you are not busy with it.

Not only is it possible for us to take time to be with God, it is essential that we do so. Someone has likened prayer to the breathing of the body. Like breathing, prayer must be the constant rhythm of our every day — speaking to God, listening to God, being with God. When we pray only in stray moments, says Henri Nouwen, we marginalize prayer. “Whenever you feel that a little praying can’t do any harm, you will find that it can’t do much good either. Prayer has meaning only when we can say that without it, a man could not live” (from With Open Hands).

When we take time to be present to God, we don’t increase the burdens of the day, we lessen them. When we pray, we don’t add to the chaos, we begin to find calmness and stability.

Years ago, I realized how the devotional practice of prayer and Bible reading helped me through the crises of my high school years. The controversies of the early seventies, the break-up of my parent’s marriage, and the intimidating experiences of growing up could have spun me out of control. But the habit of “quiet time” I learned from my grandmother and my Sunday School teacher helped me stay centered and focused on God.

Another of my spiritual mentors discovered the centering effect of taking time with God even (or especially) in the midst of the overwhelming responsibilities and pressures of pastoral ministry. He learned to walk a few miles every day. As he walked, he prayed. He removed himself, physically and spiritually, to a place where he could simply be with God. This brought him peace and perspective, and a new enthusiasm for ministry.

Brother Lawrence, who wrote the spiritual classic The Practice of the Presence of God, took the time to acknowledge the presence of God in all his moments. He discovered that he enjoyed the divine presence as much in the monastery kitchen as in his prayer closet.

Anyone of us can experience this presence — but only if we take time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Those Who Inherit the Kingdom

Then the King will say to the sheep on His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34)
This promise is from the parable of the sheep and the goats, a teaching that is often cited but frequently misunderstood.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”

He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-46)
There are two groups: the sheep and the goats. These are the nations of the world, not just the governmental entities, but all people. In Bible times, sheep were highly valued while goats were something of a nuisance and almost worthless.

Jesus is the Son of Man, the King who separates the nations as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep are lined up at His right hand, the hand of favor; the goats are placed at His left hand, signifying dishonor.

What is the basis for this separation? That is where many people misinterpret this parable. They think that it based on how the poor and needy in general are treated. That is, those who remember the poor and needy, and treat them well, are the sheep; those who neglect them are the goats.

Certainly we should always be mindful of the poor and needy to be hospitable toward them and show them kindness. God has always displayed His heart for the poor, and every good Jew in Jesus’ day would have understood that it was part of his moral duty to look after them properly. The same is required of Christians today.

That, however, is not what Jesus is talking about in this parable. He is not referring to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned in general. He is speaking about a particular group: “these My brethren.” Earlier in Matthew, Jesus clearly identified who are His brothers.
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50)
Who are His brothers? Those who do the will of His Father. When asked, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God,” Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (John 6:28-29). His disciples — all who confess Jesus Christ as Savior and King — are His brothers. To receive them is to receive Him; to reject them is to reject Him. Jesus said,
He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward. (Matthew 10:40-42)
To receive Jesus’ disciples is to receive the message they bring — the gospel of Christ — and thus receive the Lord Jesus Himself. How we respond is the difference between eternal life and everlasting punishment.

The whole world is divided into two groups: those who receive the gospel of Christ and those who reject it. Those who receive it are blessed. They inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world — the kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth

The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth
Keys to the Kingdom of God
in the Gospel of Matthew

by Jeff Doles

Preview with Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.

Friday, May 9, 2008

A Kingdom of Faithfulness

Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord. (Matthew 25:21)
In the previous parable (see A Kingdom for the Prepared), Jesus cautioned us to be prepared for His return. In this parable, He tells us how.
The kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. (Matthew 25:14-15)
Notice that each servant was given an amount “according to his own ability.” Nobody was given what he could not handle. But whatever the amount given, the master expected it to be put to use.
Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. (Matthew 25:16-18)
The first two servants put their talents to use. When the master returned he found that they had both doubled his money. Perhaps they each developed a business which was very profitable. Or perhaps they simply put it out at interest. Six to eight per cent was a common rate in those days, and they would have easily been able to double their money in nine to twelve years. Maybe that is how long the master had been gone.

The third servant, however, simply buried his talent in the ground. He had the ability to do more, and the opportunity to double his master’s money just as the others did, but he did nothing.
After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, “Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.” His lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.”

He also who had received two talents came and said, “Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.” His lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” (Matthew 25:19-23)
Notice what the issue here is: faithfulness. Remember that each servant had been given funds to manage according to his ability. Competency was not an issue — all were competent, but not all were faithful. The Greek word for “faithful” is pistos, which is the same word for “faith.” Today we often think of faithfulness as loyalty and trustworthiness. But at its core, there is a very important element of faith. These first two servants were both faithful because they had faith in their master, his words and his purpose. They were trustworthy because they trusted. The master sees a very important correlation concerning faithfulness: Those who are faithful in a few things will be faithful in many things.
Then he who had received the one talent came and said, “Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.”

But his lord answered and said to him, “You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The problem with the third servant is that he did not trust his master. He saw him as hard, stingy and oppressive, someone who exploited the labor of others. Because he had no faith, he was full of fear: “I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground.” It is like the answer Adam gave after he sinned, and God asked him, “Where are you?” Adam said, “I was afraid … and I hid” (Genesis 3:9-10).

The servant did not really know his master, but the master had his servant pretty well pegged — wicked and lazy! The master took on his servant’s argument, though he did not agree with it. “So if you thought I was oppressive, and an exploiter”—that was the sense of is his words — “then you should have put my money with the bankers so that I would at least have a little return on my investment.” Taking the money to the Exchange really would have taken no more effort than to bury it in the ground. It would have been just as safe, if not safer, and would have gathered interest — sweat free. How lazy does a person have to be to pass that one up? But the servant not only lacked faith, he was paralyzed with fear.

Now consider the consequences. The first two servants, because they were faithful in little things, were made rulers over great things, while the fearful servant lost even the one talent he had; it was given to the one who now had ten talents. Faithful diligence brings abundance, but those who are lazy and fearful will lose all they have.

The kingdom of Heaven on Earth is all about the rule and reign of God. He is looking for who will trust Him completely and obey Him diligently, even in little things, so that He may make them rulers over great things. The reward is both now and forever.

The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth

The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth
Keys to the Kingdom of God
in the Gospel of Matthew

by Jeff Doles

Preview with Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.